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February 6th, 2009
09:04 AM ET

For the love and health of pets

By Val Willingham
CNN Medical Producer

My dog, Nipsey, has ESP. Every day when I get home from work, he can tell what kind of mood I am in. If I'm tired or stressed he cuddles up and licks my face. Come home feelin' good? He's feisty and ready to play. There's not one day my dog doesn't bring me peace of mind. I love seeing my husband when he picks me up from the Metro station, but there's something about my Jack Russell that calms my soul when I walk through the door.

So when I interviewed Dr. Edward Creagan, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and told him about my pooch, he wasn't surprised. Creagan actually specializes in hospice care and knows the power of a pet. In many cases, he has taken out his prescription pad and written these words: "One dog, one cat, infinite refills." His patients say their pets help them cope with serious illnesses. That's why Creagan uses dogs in many of his therapy sessions.

Studies have shown pets are good for us. They get us out, keep us active and give us responsibility. Pets are part of our family. More people in the neighborhood know Nipsey than me. When I talk to my friends, I always ask about their pets. Ann has Buddy and Cleo; Mary her Lily; Evy loves Chip, and Nancy has two cats named Norman and Maui. They just sort of go hand and paw.

I asked Creagan if a hamster or a snake can have the same kind of effect as a dog or a cat. Creagan believes any pet, if you love that animal, can give you joy. He calls it unconditional love. And that love can keep us healthy.

Researchers at SUNY-Buffalo followed stockbrokers already taking medication for hypertension and noted that those who got a pet reduced by half the increase in their blood pressure numbers brought on my stress. Seems people who have pets have a decrease in a stress hormone called cortisol. So when you pet or play with your pet, the biological change drops your stress level and your blood pressure numbers go down.

And as we get older, pets can help us cope with illnesses. Scientists have found that older patients who have pets are less likely to be depressed and are more heart healthy. Recent studies showed those who were hospitalized with heart failure had better cardiac function when a dog visited them in the hospital. Anxiety levels dropped more if a pet was present than if a human volunteer came to visit.

And don't forget exercise. My friend Jen owns a 130-pound Boxer-Rottweiler-Great Dane-German Shepherd mix named Roscoe. She got him as a guard dog from a local shelter, but let's face it, Roscoe is her lovable treadmill. She is always active, cause Roscoe has to be walked.

As for Nipsey, I can't think of a day without him. I am blessed to have a wonderful family and people who love me, but there are days that only my dog knows what I am going through. His devotion is priceless.

What do you think? Do you have a pet? How do they help you cope? We'd like to hear about your animal.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Emily Leone

    I got my first dog in December at a point in my life when some of would have considered it terrible timing: I had just graduated with my masters in a dismal economic time, was unsure of my living situation and location, my savings were dwindling, and good old Western Pennsylvania winter was keeping me on lock down.

    But my puppy, Willow, a 3-month old Shitzu/Jack Russell mix, turned out to be exactly what I needed. In a time of drastic uncertainty in my life, Willow provides unconditional love and support every day. She doesn't give me bad news about declining job loss. She doesn't remind that it's going to be -3 degrees this weekend. She doesn't judge when
    She just sits there with her little tug rope, ready to play and be petted.

    In a time where I had a lot to be anxious and worried about, Willow has become a constant mood stabilizer, my personal pick-me-up. Though I admit I was worried at first, concerned that my own troubles at the moment may make me a selfish dog owner, I have successfully made it through potty training and nights of whining in the dog crate.

    And Willow had taught me not to take life so seriously. There's always time for a little fetch action in the front yard.

    February 6, 2009 at 12:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Sara

    Caring for her two dogs forced my grandma to get out of bed after my granda died. They also consoled her and kept my grandpa company during his cancer treatments. He lived about 50% longer than he was expected to.

    I love all of my pets and feel that my life would be a lot less rich without them.

    February 6, 2009 at 14:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. S. Hinkle

    The love of and for a pet is without a doubt a joy. We recently lost our two dogs, Jethro and Rudi. Jethro was a 15 year old basset. Looking into his big soft brown eyes always gave me a sense of peace. He was such a tender and sensitive dog, always ready to be with you and compliment your moods. So sweet.

    Rudi was an 8 year old Dalmation. He was our clown. His eyes were always bright and shining. He was always ready to play and make us laugh. He was even that way the day he passed away. That morning he was dancing and following me around as I worked in the kitchen. I was laughing at him telling him how goofy he was. That evening he had an embolism while on a walk with my husband. Taking walks and running with my husband is something Rudi loved. He was happy up until the very end. How we miss both of our boys. Life is so different without them.

    We still live with our four cats. Culpepper came from a University research colony. She has an air of superiority. You can see her attitude in her face. But at the same time she wants to cuddle and pet you. Then there is dewberry, she is a rescue from and animal shelter. She lives for food and my husband. Those are her two priorities. She is very cute and knows it. She cocks her head and pure sweetness shines. And she insists on a nightly cuddle. The next one is Finster. He wants everything on his terms. He lets you know when he is unhappy. He was a 3 week old kitten when we got him. He had been stepped on and was unconscious. We nursed him through seizures and unconsciousness for several days. We were rewarded with his personality. He studies things and tries to figure them out. He opens doors and he has flushed the toilet. He gathers his toys and puts them in a pile. And when he decides to cuddle and love you, he makes it special indeed. The final boy is Lucas. He also came from a shelter. He was found on the side of the road, sick, emaciated , and injured. The vet had to remove one of his eyes. Even the day he had his surgery he woke up being feisty and strong. Through the recovery time his nose would bleed and he was sneezing badly. He still played hard and screamed for human attention. I fell in love with his spirit of strength. He came home. We have the feistiest most fun cat. He can be so loving and sweet, and he can be the little tiger who runs through the house just for the joy of running. He is now a 15lb adult with attitude. His nick name is Mr. So and So. He knows he is it. He also is the most doglike, following us around and insisting on our laps, he also loves to fetch. We have never had a cat quite like him. All four bring us a different kind of happiness. They all enrich our lives.

    I can not imagine life without my cats. They are waiting for me when I enter the door. They know when it is time for my husband to come home. Dewberry sits and watches out the window for him.

    Even with all of this, without the dogs the house seems too empty. Our home needs a dogs soul to be totally complete. Hopefully that need will be met with a very special hound soon.

    February 6, 2009 at 15:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Joan Dimopoulos

    I can honestly say without a doubt that I have a small bischon (miss snowy) who sleeps with me under the covers, and in the morning she wakes up and does the snowy owy trick by streching, then she gets on her back, I talk to her,ask her if she wants to get up,and she listen to me,the feeling in the morning for me is happy,funny, cute butterflies in my stomach,I guess like endorphines, that's how she makes me feel,that I can start the day no matter what and I am 50 years young!

    February 6, 2009 at 16:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Dr. Susan Biali, MD

    I totally agree! My husband is Mexican, and for the last few years I commuted between Los Cabos, Mexico and Canada – an unstable life, not conducive to pet owning! We were active with the Los Cabos Humane Society; my very first winter in Cabo, they had asked me if I would perform flamenco dance (my other career) for their annual fundraiser.

    One sunny Sunday last year, our Humane Society friends asked us if we would "foster" a very special dog, Faro, who had been found out by the lighthouse ("faro" in Spanish), with his legs bound and mouth wired shut. They estimated that he had been left there, in the hot August desert sun, for almost two weeks. He had been virtually catatonic for weeks as they treated his wounds (including a broken leg), and now they needed a home for him. We said yes, even though (other than early childhood pets) Armando and I had never looked after a dog!

    Faro was one of the biggest blessings that I have ever experienced in my life. Much like new parents (I imagine), he brought my husband and I much closer, as we tried to figure out how to keep him off the couch and keep him from eating the furniture. We laughed together endlessly at his funny little habits and antics, and I noticed that just by having him lying near me, sleeping, on the living room floor, I felt immensely more relaxed than usual. Every morning was a cheerful one, as he leapt out of his kennel to greet us, as soon as we emerged from the bedroom.

    After two months of fostering him, we had to move back to Canada, to my rented condo which doesn't allow pets...we found him a "permanent" home in a villa on the beach, flew to Canada, and have been crying about him ever since.

    Two days ago, on gut instinct, we called his new owner to check in – and they told us that they, too, have been informed that they can't have dogs in their compound. So we are in the process of arranging a formal adoption, and flying him to Canada (we have rented a new place and are praying the landlord will let him stay with us, or we'll have to find yet another place...we don't care, because we need our dog!). Faro will be ecstatic to be reunited with us – but we know that we'll be the ones receiving the lion's share (dog's share?) of health and emotional benefits.

    I'm going to start prescribing dogs to my patients, too.
    Susan Biali, MD
    Wellness Expert, Author, Speaker, Life Coach
    Vancouver, Canada

    February 6, 2009 at 17:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Bonnie

    You are so right. Two years ago when my mother passed away , all my family was there. My brothers, my father , everyone but the pain was so great . No one could help. I thought no one understood what I was feeling. Until I got home to Molly and Cloe my Shitzu/ pomeraian
    mixes. The love they have. the crying I did. I know deep in my heart they understood. Everyone young and old needs unconditional love, everyone needs a pet.

    February 6, 2009 at 17:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Shawna

    I adopted a Pekignese from the Humane Society a few years ago. I live in an apt. and he is a great dog for that! At first he was so scared of people, but now is super-outgoing and friendly. My family and I have always gotten dogs from the Humane Society – it's good to give them a home!

    February 6, 2009 at 17:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Vickie

    My husband and I have thee cats, all having different personalities. Maggie weighs 14 pounds. We call her the Queen Bee, she loves water and would get in the shower with husband. She would get both sides wet and then jump out to dry off. Rat is gray and white. When we got him as a kitten, his tail was broken. The vet told us it would be fine , just crooked. He loves to play fetch. He has a favorite ball. And last but not least is Sam. When he showed up at our door, he had a big hole in his belly. We cared for him and it's healed nicely. Hew weighs about 12 pounds now. Sam is great. The love we get from our animals is amazing. I have a lot of health issues so just being able to pet them when I'm not feeling well is soothing. Ours lives have been enriched by our cats.

    February 6, 2009 at 22:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Lana

    I have a mutt that I've recently adopted. She's so grateful to be in a home. This dog is the most loving, forgiving, animal I've ever met. I wish I could be half the person she thinks I am.

    Always close and happy to see me. She doesn't care that I didn't wear makeup. Doesn't mind I sing way to loudly in the car. She doesn't judge me by my resume or net worth.

    Who needs people?

    February 9, 2009 at 14:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. keaasu

    I fully agree with the article. Pets can be there for you, just as well as humans. I had a pet dog named lady however she died. I received her when she was a tiny puppy. We did everything together. A pet is there for you even if you're not having a good day. You can rely on a pet more than a human, because no matter what, they want disappointment you.

    February 9, 2009 at 16:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. keaasu

    I fully agree with the article. Pets can be there for you, just as well as humans. I had a pet dog named lady however she died. I received her when she was a tiny puppy. We did everything together. A pet is there for you even if you’re not having a good day and still can make you smile. You can rely on a pet more than a human, because no matter what, they will not let you down.

    February 9, 2009 at 16:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Dana

    To me, pets are a part of the family. My two dogs are like my kids, and like kids they always seem to sense my mood, and are more in tune with their environment than we give them credit for. Since our pets are like kids (except more well-behaved!) we take our pets everywhere; if you are ever looking for places that are pet friendly, check out http://www.VRquotes.com. They have a ton of pet friendly places. 🙂

    February 10, 2009 at 15:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. meg

    when i got my first "real" job after college (and "real" apartment), i immediately went to the animal shelter for a cat. i came home with 2- they were sisters and their brothers had all been adopted. getting the two of them was the best decision i have ever made. when i was diagnosed with MS a couple years later, my cats became my support group. i have spent many days in bed, unable to walk or move my legs without assistance. they have never once left my side. when an MS flare left me unable to speak without stuttering and slurring, they listened while i read out loud from the bible to "practice" regaining my speech. when i'm too exhausted to do anything, they sit by my feet or on my lap. while i am blessed with a wonderful family and loyal friends, there is nothing like the love of a pet (or two!) to make you feel a little less lonely.

    February 17, 2009 at 01:57 | Report abuse | Reply
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    Pills prescribing information. What side effects can this medication cause? can i buy generic lexapro online Actual trends of pills. Read now.

    February 19, 2021 at 18:40 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.